Cairo agreement to curb violence faces challenges amid West Bank escalation

The two sides stressed the need to prevent disruptive actions at Jerusalem's holy sites

Palestinian volunteers clean the ground outside the Dome of Rock mosque at Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on Saturday. AP
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Israel's pledge to freeze new West Bank settlements in a bid to curb months of escalating violence, announced on Sunday in Cairo, was cast into doubt following a spate of violence in the occupied territory and statements from hardline Palestinian groups rejecting negotiation.

The agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority looked uncertain after a senior member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet made inflammatory statements about Palestinian rights, while a Palestinian gunman seriously wounded an Israeli American in his car, near the West Bank town of Hawara, on Sunday.

A suspect was apprehended soon after and doctors say the 30-year-old victim, who sustained head and shoulder injuries, is expected to survive.

Last month, a large mob of Israelis went on the rampage in Hawara, in which one Palestinian man was killed, dozens injured and buildings and vehicles torched. This followed the nearby killing of two Israeli settlers by a Palestinian gunman.

Mourners carry the bodies of Palestinians killed in an Israeli raid earlier in the day, during their funeral in Jenin city in the occupied West Bank, on March 16, 2023.  - Four Palestinians including a teenager were killed in a raid by Israeli security forces, the Palestinian health ministry said, the latest deadly raid in the Jenin refugee camp.  (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH  /  AFP)

Despite the Cairo joint communique's pledge to curb inflammatory statements, Israeli far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said at a memorial event in Paris on Sunday that there is “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people”, and that his grandparents are examples of “real Palestinians”.

Tensions surged after February's meeting in Aqaba and the Hawara rampage.

After the Hawara attack, labelled by some in the Israeli media as a “pogrom”, Mr Smotrich called for the town to be “wiped out”.

He later apologised, after sharp criticism at home and abroad.

Sunday’s talks have been met with outrage from more hardline Palestinian factions, such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian People’s Party and the Palestinian Democratic Union, which have issued calls to boycott the meetings.

They said they would not be bound by the outcome of the meeting because it was not the product of any talks within the PLO’s executive committee.

The meeting was also criticised by the Hamas group, whcih rules Gaza. Spokesman Hazem Qassem said the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s participation showed a disregard for “the spilt blood of Palestinians”.

On Sunday, the organisation also said a senior engineer affiliated to the group had been assassinated by Israeli forces in Syria.

In a recording leaked on Sunday, senior Hamas commander Saleh Al Arouri said his group would limit escalatory actions in Gaza in order to amplify “resistance” in the West Bank.

He added that escalating tensions are “likely to lead to broad regional violence with the Zionist enemy”.

“If the resistance in the West Bank escalates and gets to a certain level, the violence will likely expand to all of Palestine and outside of it,” he said.

The Palestinian delegation to Sharm El Sheikh was represented by a delegation headed by Hussein Al Sheikh, the secretary of the PLO's executive committee.

The Israeli delegation was headed by the country’s national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, who also led the group at the Aqaba summit.

Ronen Bar, chief of the Shin Bet security agency, and Brig Gen Ghassan Alian, the military liaison to the Palestinians, were also in attendance.

The sides agreed to meet for a third time in April.

Demonstrations were held at the Gaza-Israel border on Sunday to condemn the meeting.

Mr Qassem’s sentiments were reiterated by the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, also based in Gaza.

The meeting is a “US plot to end the isolation of the Israeli government”, said spokesman Khaled Al Batsh.

“The [Palestinian] Authority’s participation in it constitutes a lifeline to the right-wing government in Tel Aviv,” he said.

Updated: March 20, 2023, 1:24 PM